47 Ronin movie poster
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47 Ronin
47 Ronin movie poster

47 Ronin Movie Review

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47 Ronin is the perfect example of how bad buzz, and movie critics' bloodthirsty love of bad buzz, can destroy a movie's financial prospects. The movie that sort of stars Keanu Reeves is now available digitally and on disc April 1, and having finally watched the fantasy action-thriller that was ignored by critics and audiences alike, I can confirm that the movie is not entirely deserving of the vicious buzz it received. Not entirely.

While World War Z overcame similar buzz earlier in the year, there is no denying that stories of cost overruns, budget bloat and other massive issues had people - well, the 1% of people who actually care about those things (movie critics!) - circling the project like sharks at the scent of blood. The frenzy would be subsided only by Universal Pictures' decision to not screen the movie for critics (at least in Seattle, where I live), but not screening a $200-million fantasy epic sort of starring Keanu Reeves is damaging in its own right.

The movie earned only $38 million in the United States, and while it made another $110 million internationally, 47 Ronin is undoubtedly one of the biggest bombs of 2013.

But the movie isn't so bad as to deserve such a fate. As a mindless action movie, 47 Ronin is actually decent. Director Carl Rinsch, with his first feature-length project, puts together several entertaining, or at least eye-catching, action sequences. Rinsch mixes practical samurai sword fights with CGI-heavy fantastical elements, and the mixture often works.

The action and film's look and feel represent the strengths of 47 Ronin. With those pieces alone, the average moviegoer looking for some fun and excitement will find enough to enjoy.  

Perhaps one of the biggest pre-release issues with 47 Ronin was the question, "Why the hell is Keanu Reeves in this movie?" The marketing didn't do a good job of explaining his presence. Thankfully, while Reeves' character is at the core of the story, Neo is not really cast as the "white guy who saves all the Japanese guys." He doesn't say a whole lot, and when he does, he does his best to sink into the ensemble.

In some ways his "blending in" works, though such blending in also speaks to one of the movie's biggest problems: a lack of interesting characters. No one in the cast, including Reeves' co-stars Hiroyuki Sanada and Ko Shibasaki, stand out in any way; Rinsch develops no emotional connection to any of them, nor much animosity towards the film's villain. These actors and characters are just players in his production, left to talk about things in between action scenes. For whatever reason, the screenplay feels nowhere nearly as thin as one would expect given that critique, but the writing lacks the edge and intrigue to support the epic nature of the budget... er, story.

Furthermore, writers Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini and Walter Hamada fail to adequately explain the presence of demons, witches and other supernatural elements that litter the story, aside from a brief opening narrative that basically says "In feudal Japan, these things existed so just accept it, biotch." Again, the presence of all these crazy things appear to exist for the action, not the story.

47 Ronin is not a great movie. Its emphasis on action and visual effects come at the cost of character and story. But as a whole, there are far worse movies out there. The average moviegoer, the people who don't get as riled up about bad buzz, may find that this movie that sort of stars Keanu Reeves is worth a viewing.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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